Portugal, for one reason or another seemed to be the only country I couldn’t quite make it to over the years. I had visited all of southern Europe and Portugal just stuck out like a sore thumb. So when my friend suggested an extended weekend break, I couldn’t resist asking “Have you ever been to Portugal?” Luckily the reply was no.
So without too much planning we set our hearts on Porto and booked our flights for the beginning of September. Just as I had experienced in Tuscany, Italy, I soon found that the hostels on offer in Porto were more expensive than the basic hotels.
Knowing that we would be eating out to fill up on all the fresh fish, we opted to save some money and booked the Residencial Escondidinho. Located just a 5 minute walk from the Bolhao Metro Station, which takes you directly to the airport, and surrounded by places to eat, it offered all we needed. It was a cheap and cheerful place and where it lacked in terms of modernisation, it made up for in the warm and friendly manner of the 2 ladies on reception!
As soon as we landed we headed for the Metro station, in front of the airport, and purchased our Andante cards at the machine. These work in a similar way as to the UK Oyster card, except that instead of loading cash amounts, you load up journeys. The Metro system itself is surprisingly modern and clean, so much so that it was a pleasure to travel on it.
What we really enjoyed about Porto is that everything you need is located on its doorstep. You can amble through the pretty streets of the historic quarter, take a tram ride to the beach, go on a river cruise, sample the many varieties of port and of course hop from one delicious fish place to the next, without having to go very far.
We were lucky enough to have warm days and therefore explored the city mainly on foot, with the odd tram ride (partly due to the fact that I had never before been on one before!) We even took a take day trip to the nearby town of Vila do Conde, which is connected to the city of Porto via the Metro line. Getting around the city is incredibly easy and apart from the trams, reasonably priced.
One of the opportunities we could not pass up on was taking a port tour. The city is naturally divided into 2 halves by the river Douro, with one side dotted with coloured old houses and churches and the other filled with port houses.
We decided to visit Taylor’s Port house as our guidebook said they offered free tours and tastings. Unfortunately, when we arrived this was no longer the case, however they did offer a tour and 3 tastings for €3 each. A price I couldn’t really argue with.
The venue was very pretty, with a restaurant and shop, but the cellars were quite incredible. If for no other reason than for the amount of barrels actually stored there! There were hundreds of these 500 – 600 litre barrels which formed row after row of walls within the cellar. Amazing to think how much angel share that is!
The area of Matosinhos, just north west off the centre, offers and array of eating places along the coast and whilst in the area we found the open air coastal swimming pool of Piscina das Mares, located on Avenida de Liberdade and designed by Álvaro Siza. It has 2 pools filled with sea water and is located amongst the coastal rocks. A cafeteria and changing rooms are also on site and it makes for a nice place to spend the day. There are 2 entrance prices, depending on whether you spend a full day or if you arrive after 2pm, of €8 and €5 respectively.
One thing we couldn’t fault was the fresh fish dishes. If you are a fish lover then Porto is definitely the place for you. Although not necessarily cheap, the portion sizes definitely offer good value for money with an average fish dish setting you back around €8.
However, walking around the city you do get a sense of the hardships that the Portuguese people are facing with the recession. From shops closing down to neglected buildings you can’t help but feel for the country. It did leave me wondering what would happen to Porto, and inevitably other towns and cities in Portugal, if the situation does not improve soon. After all it would be a great loss to all if these beautiful and quirky buildings were not saved for future generations…